A Brief History of Asexuality
In his ground-breaking books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1948, 1953), Alfred Kinsey presented a scale that went from 0 to 6 to depict 7 sexual orientations, with 6 representing heterosexual individuals and 0 representing individuals with no “socio-sexual contacts or reactions;” determined to be a reasonable description of a person who is asexual. Since Kinsey’s descriptions, however, asexuality has been mentioned very little by researchers specifically and society in general.
It is only since the early 1990s that the presence of asexuality has been more readily acknowledged, and even more recently seen as a sexual orientation. Consequently, very little accurate information about asexuality has previously been available to the general public; this appears to be changing as a result of an increase in societal acceptance of non-heterosexual orientations, and more discussion of asexuality through social media.
With this prior lack of credible information, misconceptions have inevitably developed and proliferated, and have resulted in a great deal of confusion and speculation by concerned individuals who have many questions about asexuality. These misconceptions prevent openness and sharing about asexuality, hinder access to potential romantic partnerships, friendships, and other relationships, and may incorrectly result in a mental health illness label being assigned where a mental illness does not exist.
An acceptable definition for asexuality has yet to be developed or agreed upon as there are probably as many suggestions in circulation for a definition as there are descriptions of asexuality. One concise definition developed by the Sexual Visibility Education Network (AVEN, 2009, in Hinderliter, 2009) suggested that an asexual person is “Someone who does not experience sexual attraction.”
Prevalence of Asexuality
The actual prevalence of asexuality remains unknown, although it is speculated that 1% of the world’s population are asexual. Research results from a large-scale survey by Johnson and others (1994) of 18,876 British asexuals indicated that 1.05% “never felt attracted to anyone at all.” Two other large scale probability studies, also in the UK, found that the proportion of people who self-declared asexuality in 1990-1991 was 0.9% of the world’s population, and in 2000-2001 it was 0.4% of the world’s population (Aicken and others, 2013). Smith, 2013 indicates that “asexuality has always existed; you just haven’t noticed it.”
Reasons for this inability to determine accurate prevalence may include an individual’s personal decision to maintain a low visibility as an asexual person; is unaware of their asexual status; asexuality is not problematic; they self-describe as heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer (LGBTQ) and do not perceive themselves as belonging to the asexual community.
Asexuality is present in both genders, with little variation in gender or age of prevalence. Individuals who claim a religious affiliation acknowledge a higher frequency of asexuality than those with no religious affiliation. Unmarried Muslims, and Indians and Pakistanis with a religious affiliation are found to have a higher percentage of asexual individuals than Caucasians with a religious affiliation.
Misconceptions About Asexuality
Anywhere there is just a little information available about a topic, especially a sexual topic, misconceptions form rapidly, are embellished upon and then shared on social media at almost the same speed. As with most topics, untruthful statements tend to be accepted more quickly than truthful ones, and asexuality is no different. Twenty frequently heard/read misconceptions about asexuality are described as follows, although many more exist.
Misconception #1: Asexuality and celibacy are the same.
Asexuality and celibacy are NOT the same.
Even though asexuality and celibacy both involve abstinence from sexual activities they are not the same. Asexuality is a sexual orientation and just like other sexual orientations is not a choice, not self-determined and cannot easily be changed. Asexual individuals may demonstrate a lifelong (occasionally transient) lack of sexual attraction to people of any gender, often accompanied by low sexual desire, an absence of sexual fantasy, low sexual arousal and reduced or absent sexual activities. Many may experience romantic feelings with no involvement of sexuality, and refer to themselves as being aromantic, biromantic, heteroromantic homoromantic or panromantic, all of which indicate a romantic interest in a particular sexual orientation. They may have comfort needs, belonging needs, needs to satiate their intermittent libidinal drive, but most have little need for sexual activities per se. The presence of asexuality may be lifelong and fixed, or acquired, situational (whom, where, when, why etc.) or generalized.
Complete Celibacy means total abstention from sexual activities of any kind, including self-masturbation or masturbation by another. It is a definite, conscious, controllable decision to not engage in any form of sexual behavior for reasons that usually have little to do with a person’s sexual orientation. Decisions to become celibate are mostly rooted in religious doctrine that requires religious leaders to be celibate to better serve others. Religions that require celibacy of their leaders include Catholicism, Islamism, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, among others.
Incomplete Celibacy means complete abstention from anal or vaginal sexual intercourse; however, a partially celibate person may participate in other sexual activities, to include masturbation, sexual touching, etc. Reasons for incomplete celibacy include pregnancy prevention; AIDS and STD prevention; relief of anxiety about the act of vaginal/anal intercourse; a desire to remain a virgin; absence of available partner and limited sexual knowledge, among others.
Misconception #2: An asexual person has no sexual feelings, sexual physiological responses, romantic feelings or involvement in sexual activities.
Most asexual people experience lower sexual attraction, lower arousal and lower sexual desire than those who are not asexual; most respond physiologically and many romantically.
If an asexual person decides to have intercourse it is often to fulfill the sexual desires of his or her partner rather than to fulfill their personal sexual needs. People who are asexual sometimes may be involved in other sexual activities, referred to as outercourse. A person who is asexual may participate in sexual intercourse to become impregnated, to impregnate another, or to satisfy other needs of the partner. Aicken and others (2001) found that many asexuals are not unhappy with their frequency of sex, and consider it to be ‘about right as it is’.
Misconception #3: Asexuality is a sexual disorder just like Low Sexual Desire Disorder.
Asexuality is not a Low Sexual Desire Disorder.
Every 10 years or more, The American Psychological Association (APA) publishes a much-used source of information for world-wide mental health professionals called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), often referred to as the mental-illness bible. DSM has identified and described hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) as a mental disorder in men and women when acute or chronic distress is present. Over the years some people who are actually asexual have been misdiagnosed by mental health professionals and their asexuality identified as HSDD when no sexual disorder or severe distress has been present.
With every new and revised DSM any existing errors are corrected, and any therapies or interventions with more recent information inserted. During 2015 APA published its newest version of the DSM, DSM-5 whose authors officially acknowledged that “If the man’s low sexual desire is explained by self-identification as an asexual, then a diagnosis of male hypoactive sexual desire disorder is not made.” Similar language is used for women who are asexual. There is still resistance to use of the word self-identification, as many asexual persons may not know they are asexual, and therefore do not self-identify as such.
Misconception #4: Asexuality is not a sexual orientation.
Just like bisexuality, heterosexuality, and homosexuality, asexuality is a sexual orientation in which there is no choice of determination.
The sexual orientation of a person indicates to whom that person is sexually attracted. Asexuality indicates that a person has no sexual attraction toward anybody, regardless of sexual orientation.
Although not sexually attracted to anybody, asexual individuals are drawn to others by other attractions, and their associated bonds and relationships that can be as deep, lasting, and strong as those of others who are sexually attracted. These attractions include romantic, sensual, emotional, visual/appearance, and intellectual attractions, and perhaps others as yet undetermined.
Misconception #5: Asexual individuals cannot and do not want to have children.
Asexual Individuals Can and Do Have Children.
Being asexual does not mean that asexual men and women cannot and do not have children, they do. Their reproductive organs are no less competent than persons who are not heterosexual or homosexual. Often there may be no sexual interest between an asexual man or woman, but just one act of intercourse during the woman’s fertile period and when the man wants to “release his pent up sex drive” is all it may take for insemination to occur. Asexual couples who have no sexual interest for intercourse want and do have children for much the same reasons as non-asexuals.
Misconception # 6. Asexual individuals are not satisfied with their sex life.
Not True. Asexual Individuals Are Mostly Satisfied with Their Sex Life.
Aiken and others in 2000-2001 found that “three-quarters of asexual men and two-thirds of asexual women considered their frequency of sex ‘about right’, while 24.7% and 19.4%, respectively ‘always enjoyed having sex’.” An asexual person is often in a relationship that provides intimacy, love and connection with another that are not predicated by the need for sexual activity. However, as the relationship deepens, and the other partner desires sexual activity, statistics demonstrate that sexual activity takes place, for many reasons, and with a great degree of success.
Misconception #7: Asexuals just need to ‘get laid’ to ‘get cured.’
Asexuals Do Not Need to Get Laid
Anecdotally experience has shown that on occasion if a heterosexual man’s sexual advances are rebuffed by a woman, his response in the heat of the moment is that there is something wrong with the woman, and may mockingly state ‘you just need to get laid.’ His manner often depicts that he thinks he is the one to do it; that will cure her! However, the last thing the woman wants is to get laid in the circumstances in which the statement is usually made, and the same applies to asexuals, both males and females. They do not need to ‘get laid’ to be cured of their asexuality or to know their sexual orientation.
Misconception #8:‘You will outgrow this phase’.
Asexuality is Not a Phase So You Can’t Outgrow It.
The statement ‘you will outgrow this phase’ is heard mostly by asexual individuals from their parents or other members of their family, and occasionally friends. Parents have seen their children through many other phases, phases we experience as children, and really believe their children do not know what they want. No matter how well-meaning and loving the people close to you are, to hear these words can be extremely disheartening for a person who is asexual, especially to one who is at the point of wanting to ‘come out’ to their family about his or her asexuality.
Misconception #9: All asexuals are virgins.
It is not a given that one must be a virgin to be asexual, just as it is not a given that one must be asexual to be a virgin. Some asexuals have had sexual intercourse, lost their virginity, and have had sexual partners; others have been impregnated, or have been pregnant, and had children yet still consider themselves to be asexual. Virgins have the right to maintain their choice not to have intercourse as do people who are asexual.
Misconception #10: Asexuals do not have orgasms.
Some asexuals usually can and do have orgasms, while some do not, cannot and do not want to have orgasms.
Just like most LGBT and straight individuals, most asexuals have fully functioning reproductive organs while some do not. Similarly, some LGBT, straight and many asexuals have the ability to actually achieve orgasm while some do not. Most orgasms provide a sexual release as well as extreme pleasure and are enjoyed by most individuals who participate, including asexuals. It is suggested (but unknown) that the frequency of orgasm by asexuals is less than among non-asexuals due to less interest in physical sexual activities.
Misconception #11. All asexuals have a hormone imbalance.
Just like heterosexuals and homosexuals, a small percentage of asexuals have abnormal hormone levels, and just like heterosexuals and homosexuals a great percentage of asexuals have normal testosterone and estrogen levels.
Misconception #12. All asexuals are just gays in denial.
Unlike homosexual individuals who are sexually attracted to other homosexuals, asexual people are not usually attracted sexually to anyone of any sexual orientation. Consequently they have no desire or need to hide a homosexual orientation behind an asexual orientation as this would not benefit them in any way.
Misconception #13. Asexuality occurs as a result of sexual abuse of the person as a child, or sickness in the mother, a brain tumor or a bad environment, among others.
There has been no link established between sexual abuse, maternal illness, brain tumor, a bad environment and any of the sexual orientations, including asexuality.
Misconception #14. Asexuals are ‘Broken’ people.
Asexuals are not ‘broken,’ but that word is used to describe how some asexuals feel.
The statement that asexuals are ‘broken’ is one that is often used by asexuals when they describe themselves, especially when on social media, or by non-asexuals who lack knowledge about asexuality. To further describe asexuals’ feelings of being ‘broken,’ some have used descriptive words such as feeling ‘out of place,’ excluded, fractured, cut off, alienated, lost, invisible, among others.
Misconception #17. Asexuals Do Not Exist.
Yes, asexuals do exist.
The existence of asexual people is demonstrated by the 80,000 asexuals who have joined AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network) since 2001, or the over 600,000 self-declared asexuals in the U.K., or an estimated 1% of the world’s population.
Misconception #18. Asexuals Do Not Masturbate.
Some asexuals masturbate, some do not.
As with people of all sexual orientations, many but not all asexual people masturbate in response to the sexual urge to release sexual tension. As there is nothing wrong with an asexual person’s normal sexual physiology, genital structure and genital functioning, some masturbate to experience the pleasure of orgasm, to impregnate or become impregnated when intercourse is not desired or possible. Masturbation is a choice.
Misconception #19. Asexual people cannot fall in love.
Asexuals can and do fall in love.
Falling in love is experienced by asexuals but without the associated sexual component present when bisexuals, heterosexuals and homosexuals fall in love. They have lasting, committed relationships, often accompanied by deep and long-lasting intimacy. They often experience the same emotions as non-asexuals associated with romance and falling in love – happiness, belonging, longing, kissing, hugging, touch, etc. but without associated sexual attraction or activities.
Misconception #20. All people who are asexual have a mental illness.
Some asexual individuals experience lower self-esteem, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders.
Some asexual individuals demonstrate lower self-esteem compared to other sexual orientations (Nurius and others, 1983), and some asexual males have increased mood disorders (24%) compared to their heterosexual (15%) and homosexual (10%) counterparts (Yule and others, 2013). Anxiety disorders in asexual women are more frequent than in heterosexual and non-heterosexual women. The presence of these anxiety disorders may be the combined effect of social stigma, isolation and a sense of not belonging to a specific community, and a non-heterosexual orientation in a hetero-centered society.
As discussions, knowledge, and awareness about asexuality increase, misconceptions should diminish and asexuality be accepted as a sexual orientation, without prejudice and stigmatization.
- Aicken, R.H. et al. 2013. Who reports an absence of sexual attraction in England? Evidence from national probability studies. Psychology and Sexuality. 2013. Vol 4 37-41
- AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network). 2009. In Hinderliter, A.C. 2009. Methodological issues for studying asexuality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38:619-621
- Kinsey, A. et al. Sexual Behaviour in Human Males. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders
- Mercer, C.H. et al. 2013Changes in sexual attitudes and lifestyles in Britain through the life course and over time. Findings from national surveys of sexual attitudes and lifestyles. Lancet. Nov. 30; 1781-94
- Nurius, P. et al. 1983. Mental Health Implications of Sexual Orientation. Journal of Sex Research. Vol 19. No 2. 119-136
- Smith, S.E. August, 2012. “Asexuality has always existed, you just haven’t noticed it.” The Guardian, London
- The American Psychological Association (APA). DSM-5. American Psychological association, 2015
- Yule, M.A. et al. 2013. Mental health and sexual functioning of self-identified men and women. Psychology and Sexuality. 1-16
Submitted by Grace Blodgett
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing
- Master of Science in Physiological Nursing
- Master of Business Administration
- Doctorate in Human Sexuality
- Author of Understanding Patients’ Sexual Problems